The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Altruistic Gene

The British zoologist Mark Ridley makes a distinction between the macroscopic effects and the microscopic causes of animal behavior.

The puzzling feature of the animal world is that animals often help each other, and sometimes some individuals would sacrifice their lives to save others. This would not make any sense if the goal were merely for the body to survive.

Altruism was explained by Richard Dawkins with the idea that evolution applied to genes, not to bodies. Bodies are the vehicles that genes use to attain everlasting life. Bodies are disposable. Genes are not used by organisms, genes use organisms. I am nothing but a machine invented by a bunch of genes to maximize their chances (not mine) to survive.  I will die. But if I am fit and make children, my genes will survive me.  And if my children are fit, they will die but those genes will continue to exist in other bodies, generation after generation. It's the genes, not the organisms. Darwin's idea of competition among individuals for survival must be slightly modified: it is not individuals that compete, it is genes.  In order to maximize its chances of survival, a gene would cause one of its bodies (one of the bodies that contain that gene) to help its "kin" (bodies with the same gene). The macroscopic effect would be cooperation among organisms, while at the microscopic level that cooperation is truly an attempt by the gene to outsmart other genes, i.e. it is competition of the most cynical kind.

You have to think like a gene, not like a body. If you are a gene, you have no problem sacrificing some of your bodies to save some others. Your ultimate goal is to survive (you are the gene) and you can use any of those bodies as vehicles to continue your journey through time.  Altruism makes as much sense as selfishness in the classical Darwinian theory, as long as you look at the micro-world, not just at the animal kingdom (the macro-world) as we (bodies) see it.

In mathematical terms, sex provides a way for a gene to participate in a lottery a number of times: each body is a participant in the lottery of survival. The more bodies, the more chances to win the lottery.

This is a special lottery, though. Winning this lottery entails some work (creating and maneuvering the organism) and this work must be done jointly with other genes. Sex is the process by which a gene is chosen to work in a body together with other genes.

In each offspring the gene is working with a different set of genes. Each offspring is a combination of genes. Some of those combinations will prevail, i.e. they will generate an organism that is capable of surviving in the environment.  The gene has a vested interest in that as many as possible of those offspring survive.  If you are one of those offspring, you think that it is all about you. But, in reality, it is all about the genes that are inside you, and that you share with your siblings (and some with your cousins, and some with your entire tribe, and some with the entire human kind).

If you are a gene shared by my brother and me, it makes perfect sense that i give my life to save my brother's children. I am not jeopardizing my chances of survival: i am maximizing your chances of survival.

Matt Ridley sides with Dawkins in thinking that the gene is the unit of selection and in believing that genes are selfish; but Ridley shows that it is in their interest to form alliances, because that may increase the chances of survival for their genetic pool. Cooperation is actually a recurring theme at all levels of the biological world, from cells to species. Ridley explains cooperation among organisms of different species by using game theory: whenever the mathematics of benefits outweighs the mathematics of  competition, organisms tend to be cooperative. Therefore, Ridley believes that social behavior, such as cooperation, trade, religion, is a direct consequence of evolution.


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